The questions that mid-life raises can be posed in many different ways. Here is how Malcolm X put it over thirty years ago: “We want to know what we are. How did we get to be what we are? Where did we come from? How did we come from there? Who did we leave behind? And what are they doing over there where we used to be?” Identifying the chronological age span that constitutes mid-life can be a dicey proposition since, in the words of Nancy Schlossberg in Adults in Transition, we have become an “age-irrelevant society.” The thirty year old person is the city’s mayor, the sixty-eight year old man is the new father, the forty-three year old woman is a new grandmother, the fifty year old woman re-enters the work force, and the fifty-five year old man takes early retirement. Rather than deal with age as the determiner, then, I would suggest a number of behavioral markers that might signal middle age:
- The children have moved out;
- The children have not moved out and remain “unlaunched” and living at home;
- You don’t recognize the names of popular music groups anymore;
- You worry about having enough money to pay for health care;
- It takes a day or two to recover from strenuous exercise;
- You think more about the past than the future;
- At least one parent has died.
Beyond these behavioral manifestations are both physical and psychological experiences that remind us of the transition. Physically, the premier marker of middle age is the experience of slowing down. We have less energy, experience more fatigue, and experience a decreased tolerance for exercise. There are often changes in sleep patterns, weight changes (usually up), changes in eyesight (usually down), and changes in one’s appearance (often graying). Psychologically there is often an increase in depression that accompanies a newly diagnosed medical condition. There is an increasing realization of mortality as we experience, often for the first time, the death of a peer. Significant birthdays, like turning 40 or 50, herald the fact that, despite what we may have believed in the past, we are no longer young; that particular illusion can no longer be sustained. Time seems to pass much more quickly and we are more likely to wonder about whether we have lived up to our own personal expectations.
Beyond all of these descriptors is the cultural reality of the times in which we live. We are the generation living through an information revolution every bit as profound as the industrial revolution of the past. It is no longer possible to follow the paths of previous generations or to go on doing the same thing for a lifetime. Our lives not only take new directions, but they are subject to repeated re-direction.
Mary Catherine Bateson in her book Composing a Life describes this process as recognizing the value of “lifetimes of continual re-definition.” She says, “Many of society’s casualties are men and women who assumed they had a chosen path in life and found that it disappeared in the underbrush. These are the easiest to recognize in areas where continuity used to be greatest.”
Our tendency is to hold on to continuity however deeply it is flawed. One of the signs of stagnation in mid-life is a refusal to take any more risks. If change were less frightening and the risks did not seem so great, far more could be lived. Bateson reminds us, “It is now time to explore the creative potential of interrupted and conflicted lives, where energies are not narrowly focused. . . . These are not lives without commitment but rather lives in which commitments are continually re-focused and re-defined.”
This is the great challenge of the mid-life transition: not only to accept and accommodate physical and psychological changes, but also to embrace change itself. To use James Baldwin’s words: “People pay for what they do, and still more for what they have allowed themselves to become. And they pay for it simply: by the lives they lead.” To recognize that change is the normative experience of human life means that we must be willing to grieve our losses and take new risks. It may be scary, but at least the adrenaline is flowing.
Mary Ragan, CSW, is Community Education Director of the Psychotherapy & Spirituality Institute and Area Director of PSI at Trinity Church, Wall Street.